KEY WEST, FLA. — The sunsets are Monet perfect as always and there is no shortage of tourists lined up to visit the Ernest Hemingway home. But beneath Key West's terminally laid back atmosphere, a civil war is brewing over the town's most controversial resident:
The Key West wild chicken.
For an island that has served as a haven for everyone from pirates to bootleggers to cross-dressers, the so-called feral chickens that roam Key West may finally be the citizens too unruly for the town's famed anything-goes lifestyle. And even here, the site of Mardi Gras-style parties staged every night on Duval Street by tourists adorned in beads and floral shirts as loud as their reveling, the chickens have worn out their welcome.
To Assistant City Manager John Jones, the chickens are a civic problem, no different from a shortage of parking or an excess of potholes. But it is the complaints over the chickens that are enlivening the phone lines at City Hall. Hundreds of miffed residents have called in their chicken problems to Mr. Jones's office where, until recently, the complaints were taken down and little else was done.
According to Jones, the wild chickens that strut down city streets and approach diners in outdoor cafes for hand outs have gone from being part of the city's funky charm to a public nuisance. "These roosters, the fighting cocks, they don't know when to shut up. Boy, they crow loud," he says. "And one starts and it sets off a chain reaction."
Some Key Westers or "Conchs," as locals call themselves, say that out-of-towners can't grasp the full dimensions of their troubles. The Key West chickens are no ordinary fowl, they claim, but an especially abrasive strain that descended from prize fighting cocks. Over the years, chickens have been blamed for everything from blocking traffic, to attacking house pets, to fouling the waters off local beaches with their droppings.
In response, the Key West Chamber of Commerce in January allocated $18,000 to hire the first chicken catcher in the city's - and probably any other city's - history. If the removal plan goes as scheduled, about 900 of the island's 2,000 free-roaming chickens will be captured and shipped to a produce farm near Miami over the next six months. There they will help keep the cockroach and scorpion populations in check.
But even before the first bird could be seized, some Conchs - yes, the itinerant agitators do have their defenders - got mad over the plan to reduce the population. Not far from the tourist bars on Duval Street, Katha Sheehan sits in her Chicken Store and explains to visitors that it's Key West's people - not poultry - who are the problem.
Posters line the walls for the Rooster Rescue Team, the group Ms. Sheehan founded, and bumper stickers proclaim "the Chicken Wars" and "What's the Clucking Problem?" Roosters, hens, and "biddies" (Sheehan's name for chicks) sit in cages and run free around her feet.
Sheehan makes the case for the chickens in a soft voice, as if she were tired of arguing with irrational opponents. She says she is surprised at the depth of the hatred toward the chickens. She attributes the sentiment to recent arrivals who moved to the Keys, not for the island's Bohemian lifestyle, but to build platinum-priced homes with golf course lawns and no poultry to ruin the landscaping. Sheehan says she has rescued chickens that have been poisoned, shot, and enticed to fight. In her Key West, there are only chicken lovers and chicken haters.
"In some of the nicest parts of town, where it seems like the epitome of Southern hospitality, the isles of the blessed, you can have the most festering, horrid disputes between neighbors," Sheehan says. "And chickens, like pool pumps, dogs, and tree branches, can be part of those neighbor-versus-neighbor disputes."
Her solution is the construction of a "chicken park," made out of the island's towering landfill of rotting newspapers and rusted cans that locals refer to as "Mount Trashmore." Instead, the city has opted for removal. "It's the victims who are being deported here," Sheehan tells visitors to the Chicken Store.
Opposition to the removal plan will be on display in June, when a public celebration called "Chicken Fest" is expected to draw hundreds of partygoers. The idea for the pro-chicken festival comes from the organizers of Fantasy Fest, the racy annual street party where celebrants don masks and often little else.
One person who may or may not be there is Armando Parra, a local haircutter who was awarded the job of chicken catcher. Mr. Parra, who grew up around chickens and knows how to find and trap them, was just out to make a little extra income. But the avalanche of controversy and publicity that followed his appointment has stunned the semi-retired barber.
He has, unwittingly, become the Simon Cowell (of American idol fame) of chicken catching - an instant celebrity who is both reviled and revered. These days Parra is giving more interviews than trims. The black phone behind his barber chair is rarely silent. He has been featured on network news programs, and producers from late night shows call about bookings.
Key Westers often show up at his door to drop off unwanted chickens. Parra accuses pro-chicken Conchs of tampering with his traps. He routinely receives unsolicited advice on the best way to nab a bird. "I'm a 63 year-old man," he says, shaking his head. "I can't even catch my breath: How I am going to catch a chicken with a net?"